How to prescribe yourself sleep
Convenient or not, it’s a biological fact: adults need to sleep between seven and nine hours each night. A colossal 66 per cent of us fail to do so on a regular basis. It’s not just a matter of feeling tired the next day; over the long run, sleep deprivation can contribute to depression, obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart attacks, and increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
“The silent sleep-loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century in developed nations,” argues Dr Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, in his recent book, Why We Sleep. “Scientists like me have even started lobbying doctors to start ‘prescribing’ sleep.”
Walker’s top tip for a successful ‘prescription’ is sticking to a schedule. The body naturally thrives on a regular sleep-wake rhythm, and a set bedtime will remove some of the temptation to spend your time in other ways.
He also recommends avoiding, if at all possible, medicines that could ‘conflict’ with the sleep prescription, such as certain heart, blood pressure or asthma medications, plus some remedies for colds, coughs and allergies. There are alternatives available for many of these drugs, so if they’re costing you shut-eye, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
How to sleep away from home
If you’ve ever tossed and turned in a hotel room, you may have experience with ‘night-watch brain’.
Cerebral imaging has revealed that, similarly to dolphins, pigeons and other animals, humans rest one half of the brain less than the other when we’re in an unfamiliar setting. This adaptation would have been advantageous for our ancestors, who were at risk of predators in the wild, but it’s far less useful for today’s traveller. You can minimise it by staying at the same hotel for as long as you remain in a city and by booking similar rooms from the same chain wherever you go.
How to foster your dreams
Scientists used to think that dreaming happened only during REM (rapid eye movement), the last stage of the sleep cycle. We now know that earlier stages can bring wisps of dreams as well, but REM is the time of the most detailed, active and emotional ones.
Sleep deprivation is understood to be dangerous, but REM deprivation is also an issue, claims a 2017 review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. People with fewer dreams are more subject to mood dysregulation (recurrent temper outbursts or persistent extreme irritability), pain sensitivity, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, dementia and delusions; ironically, dreaming helps you maintain your sense of waking reality.
Dreams are threatened by alcohol, which helps you nod off faster but then disrupts REM. Benzodiazepines (used as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medication) “significantly repress REM/dreaming”, the review says. Another common culprit: alarm clocks. They are often necessary, but try to wake up naturally whenever possible in order to avoid interrupting sleep cycles.